“By faith Abel . . .” “By faith Enoch . . .” “By faith Noah . . .” “By faith Abra-ham . . .” “By faith Sarah . . .” “By faith Isaac . . .” “By faith Jacob . . .” “By faith Joseph . . .” “By faith Moses . . .” “By faith Rahab . . .” And on and on goes this chapter people have called the honor roll of faith; it’s a long passage with a lot of stories, and in-deed time would fail me to deal with all of them—but for all that, and for all the lessons we could draw from this chapter, it’s a long passage with one single main point, and it’s the same point we considered last week: faith in Christ is worth keeping. The life of faith is absolutely worth living.
As part of that, it’s worth noting that the author of Hebrews doesn’t just tell happy stories. Indeed, he doesn’t mostly tell happy stories. The first person named is Abel, who was murdered by his brother; and at the last, we get a list of all sorts of horrible things that God’s faithful ones have suffered over the years. In between, of course, we get heroic figures like Abraham and Moses, but even there, we see a definite emphasis on the trials of life—with Abraham, we don’t just get his journey by faith to the Promised Land, we see him trading in a city for tents, and the author reminds us of the time when God tested him by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac. When the author talks about Moses, he emphasizes the tyrannical anger of Pharaoh and the mistreatment of the Israelites. Hebrews gives us the power of God and the victory of faith, yes, but it also tells us clearly not to expect that victory to be easy, or the road to be smooth. Unblinkingly, it tells us we’re going to have hard times.
That’s not so much the way we tend to do business these days. There are a lot of big churches and ministries and movements out there that are built on telling happy stories of faith. This person had faith and God healed their incurable cancer, and that person had faith and God gave them success in business, and that couple over there had faith and God freed their son from addiction and turned his life around, and if you have faith, you’ll see everything start to go right just like they did. And you know, as a sales pitch, it’s a remarkably effective way to get people in the door. But it has two problems. First, it’s right back to the old pagan idea of religion as a contract with the gods—you do this to please your god, and your god has to give you something you want in return—and that’s not what Christian faith is about. And second, what about those of us who don’t see all that good stuff happen? What happens if you buy into the idea and you don’t get better—or your spouse doesn’t—or your business fails, or your children keep going astray? What then? Well, either you blame it on yourself—something must be wrong with your faith—and so you work harder to try to earn that reward, or else you conclude you’ve been sold a bill of goods, and you walk away from the whole thing.
The fact of the matter is, God does bless some people in those kinds of ways, but not everyone, by any means; some people he blesses in other ways. And even those who do see miraculous healing and amazing financial success still have their temptations and their struggles—life still isn’t easy, it’s just differently hard. Hebrews isn’t interested in trying to sell us on faith by telling us faith will give us the life we’ve always wanted; rather, it’s trying to show us that God has something even better for us—something which is worth the trials and suffering and difficult times that come as part of the package.
That, I think, is why we also have the emphasis on the amazing things God did through these people. No, he didn’t protect them from pain or always give them the successes they would have hoped for—but look what he gave them instead! They won victories they could never have imagined and received blessings beyond any human power to give—and more than that, they had the honor to be included in God’s plan for the redemption and transformation of the world. Part of the reason God doesn’t always give us what we want is that unlike us, he doesn’t have to think that small; he can do far more.
At the same time, though, the blessings God gives us and the things he accomplishes through us are not to be our reason for faith, but rewards for it—and not the main rewards, but little reassurances along the way. Hebrews underscores the fact that these people were living toward something they would never see in their earthly lives—they lived in faith and they died in faith, still waiting and hoping for God to keep his greatest promise. They lived between the promise and the fulfillment, looking forward to—well, us: to the coming of Christ, the gift of his Holy Spirit, and the church; the meaning and significance of their lives depended on something beyond them, something still to come. And though our circumstances are different, in this they are an example for us, because we too live between: we live in the time between the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise and its conclusion, between the first coming of Christ and his return, when the kingdom of God is breaking into this world but has not yet been fully realized. Which means, to live in this time, we too must live by faith, looking forward to a time when we will all fully receive what has been promised.